Food system resilience : ontology development and impossible trinities

Wassenaer, Lan van; Oosterkamp, Elsje; Asseldonk, Marcel van; Ryan, Mark


Background: Given the polysemy of the concept resilience, is it possible to have a unified conceptualisation of food system resilience? This paper provides a multidisciplinary evaluation of the literature to identify common themes that prevail in food system resilience debates and the challenges to reach a unified conceptualisation. The aim is to provide insights into some of the main issues and tensions that we identified during our research which will then allow academics and policymakers to identify the most significant themes and topics for discussion in the debate. While we only focus on one application of resilience, namely, food system resilience during extreme events, we believe that our approach and findings could be integrated and applied to other areas of resilience, as well. Results: Our ontological exploration shows that ‘resilience’ is a rich concept that has an important bearing on many themes and topics in the domain of food systems. This makes it highly relevant to develop and apply the concept of ‘food system resilience’. The application of the concept in research and practice, however, faces many challenges that are rooted in ontological and epistemological differences among different disciplines and practices. While posing serious challenges in interdisciplinary collaboration and communication, these challenges also foster new research opportunities as knowledge gaps are discovered. We propose that there is a need to critically investigate the social, environmental, and economic trade-offs implied in policy strategies towards resilience at various levels of food systems and among different actors or groups of actors. Conclusion: Interdisciplinary communication between different fields can be difficult and divisive. The ambition to unify the theory may be counterproductive in addressing practical problems that often require multidisciplinary collaboration. The challenge is to identify context-specific challenges and policy options using the ‘resilience lens’ and translating the concept into measurable indicators. Our research identifies some of these challenges and aims to provide a way to improve dialogue between different actors, through discussions about tensions and issues within their research. The ontological differences and debates are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, nor should it be a priority to resolve these differences. A pragmatic case-specific approach can be adopted to address the problem while considering ontological differences. Our research will provide food system resilience researchers with some guidance about challenges in their research, as well as those working on developing ontologies.